Categories
Review

“SPQR”

Mary Beard

Very much inspired by my reading of the history of the Byzantine Empire, I realized that I also don’t know much about the history of Rome aside from the bits that you pick up by cultural osmosis, growing up here in the West. Bookstores are great for things like this, where you don’t know what specifically you want to read, but you do know the general topic—just wander over to that section and browse, and see what catches your eye! Which is how I arrived at this book.

I mostly enjoyed the read. I filled five or six pages of a memo book with quotes as I was reading, things that stood out to me, which I somewhat did with the thought in mind of pulling some of them for writing this review, but now that I’m doing the writing, I don’t think I’m actually going to follow through on the idea. Suffice it to say, it was well-written, and generally an enjoyable read. Easier to read than Norwich’s work was, at least, aided in part by being a single volume instead of three, and thus feeling like more of a general overview than the curriculum notes for a four-year course of study.

The reason that I don’t want to go for my notebook, though, is that I have one main thought that I’ve kept circling around for the entire second half of the book: the study of history is not neutral. By studying, and teaching, and writing about history, we impose our own views upon it; we, as humans, are not able to view any objective truth. We are subjective creatures. And this thought kept circling around and around in my mind from the moment the word “friend” was used.

Friendship is a fine thing! Lots of people have friends, it’s one of those fundamental human experiences that historians should keep an eye out for. It is not, however, the only thing, and sometimes calling someone a ‘friend’ is a disservice. In this case, when the source material you are citing is a man referring to another man as his “same-gender partner”, discarding that in favor of “friend” is wrong. We have a word for that: erasure.

There is a reason that a through line in anti-LGBTQ sentiment is “these things didn’t used to exist,” and that reason isn’t that said things actually didn’t used to exist; it is that historians over the last couple of centuries have gone to great lengths to pretend they didn’t, to bury or destroy any evidence that they did. And yes, there is an argument to be made that we shouldn’t try to paint historical figures with our modern terminology—but then, that argument only seems to come up when we’re talking about whether or not a historical figure can be called queer.

Historians are, historically, extremely eager to find any possible heterosexual explanation for things, even when doing so requires extensive leaps in logic. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written for men? Well, you see, back then cultural morays about how much affection men could platonically show other men were different. Alexander the Great was so distraught at the death of the man he loved that he demanded he be deified, and that when he himself died, he be buried in the same tomb? They were just the best of friends. President Buchanan was so visibly in a relationship with Senator King that their nicknames in DC were “Uncle Fancy and Aunt Nancy”? Say, is that is why my history classes sorta just didn’t talk about President Buchanan at all? Nevermind, don’t worry, there’s a perfectly straight explanation for this — it’s just gals being pals.

Once that thought was in my mind, it was hard to let go of it and not read this book in a queer-history light, and boy, does it ever not hold up well to that sort of inspection. The only clear mentions of homosexuality at all are a passing remark about a Senatorial insult being someone ‘enjoying nubile slave boys to an uncouth amount,’ and some mention of Hadrian—which is itself rather unavoidable when talking about Hadrian.1

So, here’s my summary: this is a good overview of Roman history, but it is, like all studies of history, flawed. It got me to break my usual “no writing in books” rule, and correct the word “friend” to “boyfriend” out of something akin to spite; but it also gave me pages of interesting quotes about Rome and the Empire, and taught me a great deal that I didn’t know. Plusses and minuses. It’s worth a read.2

  1. Although, having said that it’s unavoidable, I immediately noticed that the Wikipedia info-box on Hadrian lists three different burial sites for him, but somehow doesn’t have room for the name of the man he loved so much that he had thousands of statues carved in his image all across the Roman Empire, so, modern historians haven’t improved.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Byzantium: The Decline and Fall”

John Julius Norwich

I do like this bit from the epilogue, as Norwich sums up the various rulers the empire had over its 1,100-odd years of existence:

Of those eight-eighty [emperors], a few – Constantine himself, Justinian, Heraclius, the two basils, Alexius Comnenus – possessed true greatness; a few – Phocas, Michael III, Zoe and the Angeli – were contemptible; the vast majority were brave, upright, God-fearing, unimaginative men who did their best, with greater or lesser degrees of success.

Just the word “unimaginative” in there really got to me. What a painful legacy to leave!

It is, though, pretty fitting. A lot of the events of this book boil down to “and then something else went wrong, which would’ve been quite manageable if the Emperor had been slightly better at being Emperor.” Though, admittedly, there’s also a whole lot of them where the “would’ve been quite manageable” leads instead to “if the Who’s Who of Constantinople could’ve taken a break for one month from squabbling with each other in order to keep the Empire from slowly dissolving.” So much of the decline of the Byzantine Empire feels like a testament to selfishness. The Emperor is off trying to consolidate the recapture of some of the critical agricultural heartland of the empire? Sure, that’s probably important and all, but it also means he’s distracted, and now’s your chance to stab him in the back!

I think I’ll place this book at second place of the trilogy; the first was just overwhelming, the second did a better job at storytelling, and the third did an even better job at telling the story… but by this point in history, it was a really depressing story. That said, if you want to read about the slow decline of the Byzantine Empire, this is a pretty solid way to do so, and you’re welcome to give it a try.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Byzantium: The Apogee”

John Julius Norwich

Continuing my reading of history, we’ve got Byzantium Part II. (Although, really, Byzantium is Rome 2.) I found this more readable than the previous book, which I suspect has a great deal to do with the fact that this one is covering less ground. One emperor per chapter, roughly, worked well as a way to split things up, though it did occasionally make for strange ends and beginnings of chapters when there was a great deal of action taking place in the changeover. Someone dies and their son assumes the throne with no arguments, perfectly fine; someone is assassinated by their wife and her lover who wants the throne, but wait, maybe there’s someone else who’s going to take the throne, and oh wait the Church has arrived to add some drama… less of a coherent chapter split.

I did at some point realize that I need a bit more visual of this and went to find some maps of the Byzantine Empire at various points in time, which helped; probably should’ve done that before, oh, the second-to-last chapter or so. Hard to visualize the changing borders when I’m not great at geography to start with, and all the names are different because it’s 1,000 years in the past.

Reviewing the empire itself, rather than the book, there’s still a feeling of “1,000 years, three continents, and somehow there’s only 4 first names to go around?” to it. I would not have survived as a history major, I simply cannot deal with the repetition. I’ve also got a great deal of frustration for some of the wondrous things that were built and utterly lost to history; there’s a description in the book of a throne room full of mechanical animals that I would love to see, but alas, we have yet to invent a time machine that would allow that. Science should really get on that.

Overall, this was a much nicer read than the first book, and I may actually jump right into the third as a result; I didn’t end the book feeling like I’m still interest yet need a break. So hey, this time, I’ll go ahead and recommend that you check it out.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Plutopia”

Kate Brown

I’ve always had an interest in the technological arms race of the Cold War, which fits right alongside my interest in infrastructure. And, as with every other aspect of technological arms race, the nuclear technology race was ridiculous; where it differs is in the degree. Cyborg cat to spy on the other side? Ridiculous. Space race? Very cool, some actually good civilian uses, conceptually ridiculous if you didn’t grow up knowing it’s possible to put stuff in orbit.

Deliberately creating tons upon tons of one of the most toxic substances known to mankind, and in the process creating other incredibly toxic substances in amounts that render massive areas uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years? That’s not just ridiculous, that is obscene.

Plutopia focuses on that—the two cities, Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, that were built around the production of plutonium. And boy howdy, does nobody look good in this story; the similarities in mistakes made would be comic, if it wasn’t a tragedy that’s going to be screwing over our great^100-grandchildren. In addition to just about everyone involved from the time the cities were founded onward.

Two anecdotes stand out in my mind. First, in what reminds me of the Uber business model, a fun fact: the third-worst radiological disaster in human history officially listed zero casualties from the cleanup. Pause for effect. Because the USSR only tracked the health outcomes of paid employees working on the cleanup, which effectively meant they were only worrying about the people managing the people doing the cleanup work. Hey, careful handing out those orders, pal, you don’t want to get any of the radioactive waste on yourself!1

Second one, which immediately feels like fodder for HBO to do a second season of Chernobyl:

A week after the explosion, radiologists followed the cloud to the downwind villages, where they found people living normally, children playing barefoot. They measured the ground, farm tools, animals, and people. The levels of radioactivity were astonishingly high. S. F. Osotin, a monitor, remembered that a colleague went up to the children and held up his Geiger counter. He said, “I can tell with this instrument exactly how much porridge you had for breakfast.” The children happily stuck out their bellies, which ticked at forty to fifty microroentgens a second. The technicians stepped back, shocked. The kids had become radioactive sources.

Overall, this book fascinated me. And horrified me! But I grew up downstream of Hanford, and this is apparently just the world we live in now, so what else can you do? Better to be informed, I suppose. Check it out.2

  1. Don’t get all patriotic about this, my fellow Americans—the Hanford site did the same thing in their statistics, as well as a repeated trend of calling anything other than “died of their skin melting off” or “died of a thyroid full of radiation” a death not caused by radiation. Grew up drinking from the aquifer that the high level waste pond was seeping into, got cancer of the everything at 20? Unrelated, we assure you.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Byzantium: The Early Centuries”

John Julius Norwich

I’ve realized recently that there’s a whole lot of history that I know basically nothing about. Prior to reading this book, the extent of my knowledge of the Byzantine Empire was “I think it used to be the Roman Empire, and then when the Roman Empire collapsed, part of it stuck around for a while? And then in the last century they renamed Constantinople to Istanbul,” and then after that some confused muttering that reveals I wasn’t even clear on the distinction between the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

Anyhow, someone mentioned that they were reading this series, and I thought I’d check it out. I’m certainly not a historian, but I can at least be a little better-informed than I’d been previously! Though, honestly, despite this being the first of the trilogy, I feel like I started much too late in the story. Turns out that the successor state to the Roman Empire requires a lot of context on how the Roman Empire works that I, unsurprisingly, also don’t have! So at some point I suppose I’ll go in search of a similar high-level overview of Roman history, backfill more of my knowledge.

Frankly, I don’t expect to retain much of the detail here. This is a few hundred pages covering hundreds of years of history; you can’t get a detailed overview at that density, and thanks to the inability of royalty to have unique names, it’s all a horrific muddle to try to keep track of regardless. I’m fairly certain there was an entire dynasty who never named a child anything that wasn’t a variation of “Justinian” or “Constantine,” and that just seems like a great way to give a kid a complex.

Still, I’ve got a bit more high-level overview, which is what I wanted going in. At some point, I’ll dive back in and pick up the second of the trilogy, but at least for the moment, I think I need to give my brain a break and go read something with a lot fewer facts… and a lot fewer horrific slaughters. I don’t recommend against this book, but… maybe see if your local library has a copy, rather than trying to buy it.

Categories
Review

“The End is Always Near”

Dan Carlin

If you aren’t familiar with the name, Dan Carlin is the creator of Hardcore History, which is nominally a podcast series. Personally, I’d argue that it’s a more of a series of audiobooks that’s published via a podcast feed; the average episode is somewhere in the area of five hours long. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re at all interested in history, it’s well worth a listen.

Having listened to the podcast prior to reading this book, I found it very easy to read in his voice. He’s got a slightly different tone he uses for asides, parentheticals; every time I followed an asterisk to get down to the footnote, I found my mind going to that same tone, and it fits perfectly. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who speaks for a living managed to encode their manner of speaking into a book, but it works very well.

The general premise of the book is pretty well-aligned with the name: human history is a long series of events that stood a very solid chance of wiping out, if not our species, then at least our civilization. And, several times, the latter did happen—Assyria fell. Babylon fell. Rome fell.

For the most part, being a history book, it feels pretty timeless, but here in 2022, the chapter on previous pandemics has definitely aged. The points made are largely still valid, but one point that he hammers on—we have no frame of reference whatsoever for a civilization-scale pandemic—no longer holds true. Sure, we haven’t experienced something like the Black Death, wiping out half the population, but having gone through global quarantines, we can at least begin to imagine it.

That one caveat aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone who likes history. And existential dread. Give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Articles Education

The United States and the European Union

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the fall of 2016 titled “Austrian Politics and Society in a European Context.” I’ve decided to publish it here because… why not?
In the wake of the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world was left massively changed. The era of two superpowers had ended; for a while, the world lived under the hegemony of the United States of America. That era, too, has come to an end, though a much quieter one: new superpowers have begun to develop. China is coming into its own as a world power; India has high aspirations that have yet to be realized; the Russian Federation has, under the control of Vladimir Putin, used the legacy of the Soviet Union to re-emerge as a military superpower, if not an economic one. The most interesting emergent superpower, however, is the European Union: rebuilt in the wake of the Second World War by the United States as a colony-esque bulwark against the spread of Communism, it has become an economic powerhouse to rival the United States. The European Union, thanks to its history of US-backed construction, has the most in common with the reigning hegemon; it does, however, have some key differences. It is these similarities and differences that will be examined in this paper.
The core institutions of the European Union (E.U.) are, in writing at least, more complex a structure than those of the United States (U.S.A.): while the E.U. has seven key institutions, the government of the U.S.A. is split into three.12 What is, in the U.S.A., the Executive Branch of the government is in the E.U. distributed across several institutions: the European Council, combining the heads of state of all the member nations into a President-by-committee; the European Commission, to handle the day-to-day functionality of the E.U. in all its aspects; the European Central Bank, coordinating the monetary policy of the E.U.; and the Court of Auditors, ensuring that the monetary policy and budgetary strictures of the E.U. are actually being followed. The Legislative Branch is, similarly to the U.S.A., a bicameral structure, though split into the Council of the European Union and the Parliament, rather than into a Senate and House as in the United States. The Judicial Branch in the U.S.A. is closely matched in structure by the European Court of Justice in the E.U.: the Court of Justice itself at the top, in answer to the Supreme Court of the U.S.A., with a network of lower courts beneath it.
Within these structures are further differences. One of the most visible differences is in the party systems of the two unions. In the U.S.A., two parties have nigh-on absolute control of the political system: the liberal Democrats and the conservative Republicans. Smaller parties exist, but none are large enough even to have ballot access in every state, making them largely irrelevant on the national playing field.3 In the E.U., the political system allows for representation of more parties: in the current European Parliament, seven different parties are represented amongst the 762 Members of the European Parliament (M.E.P.s), and 31 M.E.P.s are listed as “unattached” – generally referring to an affiliation with a party that exists only within their member state, and not across the E.U. as a whole.4 A point of similarity across both, however, is the existence of partisan politics – the vitriolic nature of the recent election in the U.S.A. demonstrates the prevalence of blind party loyalty. The E.U., as well, is to some degree guilty: take, for example, the actions of the European People’s Party to shield Hungary’s Orban government from criticisms in the European Parliament.5
The varying parties are not the only way in which the two superpowers differ. The U.S.A. has always had a common foreign policy; it is one of the rights granted to the President and the Congress by the Constitution. In the E.U., this is not so – though the Treaty of Lisbon created the office of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the powers of that seat are still limited largely to defense and security policy.6 The other core difference between the two is in their sources of revenue: the U.S.A. is able to levy taxes directly, while the E.U. income is a mix of direct contributions from member nations, a very small percentage of the E.U.-wide Value Added Tax, and import duties on non-E.U. goods.7 This creates a sharp difference between the amount of monetary force the organizations are able to throw behind their various initiatives. For example, the United States federal research and development budget for 2017 is almost the same as the entirety of the E.U. budget for the same time period.89 The budgetary differences alone are enough to guarantee that the federal government of the U.S.A. is much more powerful, relatively, than the E.U. is in relation to its member states.
Economic differences, however, are not the only reason that the federal government of the U.S.A. holds more power than the institutions of the E.U.: the largest part of this difference is due to the set of powers given directly to the organizations. In the E.U., this list of powers (or rather, competences, as they are termed by the organization) is fairly concise: the creation of a customs union, the ability to create competition rules to maintain the internal market, Eurozone monetary policy, the common commercial policy, a limited ability to conclude international agreements, and the common fisheries policy for the conservation of marine biological resources.10 In the United States, that same list of fiscal powers is given to the national government, but has several additions on top of that. These additions include the full spectrum of foreign policy, notably the declaration of war; the creation of the armed forces, as an extension of foreign policy; the creation of post offices; and the ability to create any law that is “necessary and proper” to carry out those other powers.11 And, of course, the fact remains that the E.U. does not have the capability to levy taxes, while the federal government of the U.S.A. shares that ability with the states. At their root, the two superpowers have a very different stance on the centralization of power; as a result of this, the governance of the U.S.A. is much more cohesive than that of the E.U.
Economically, the two have quite a bit in common: they are the two most powerful economies in the world, and sit comfortably at the top of the “developed” economies list.12 The top ten companies worldwide, by revenue, includes three U.S. corporations and three E.U. corporations, in a mixed order.13 The picture changes a bit when sorted by profitability: the three Chinese state-owned and the Japanese contender all vanish… as do the three E.U. corporations. Instead, the list becomes entirely U.S. companies, mostly financial services firms but made incredibly top-heavy by the presence of Apple.14 In both finance and information technology, the U.S.A. has a strong lead over the E.U., a gap that may grow larger with the pending Brexit talks: not only will Britain take BP (the 10th-largest company in the world) with her when she goes, but with her goes London, the “financial capital of the world.”15
At the governmental level, more similarities and differences are evident: the U.S. Dollar remains one of the world’s strongest currencies, and serves as the official currency of the entirety of the U.S.A., as well as a remarkably long list of other countries. The Euro, though nearly as strong, lacks the historical backing of the dollar, and theoretically only applies to those member states that meet the requirements to join the Eurozone – though, one should note, that a few non-Eurozone member states use it as their official or de facto currency, and the membership requirements for the Eurozone have not always been met by its members.16 The central banks of the two superpowers have similar levels of power, though their response to the global financial slump in the 2000s was quite different: the European Central Bank focused on containing inflation, while the Federal Reserve System in the U.S.A. was much more active in restoring the U.S. economy.17 There is also a notable weakness in the European banking system, thanks in no small part to the different division of power: the lack of a strong pan-European banking union.18 In the U.S.A., the Federal Deposit Insurance Company provides deposit insurance to member banks, providing a strong signal of trustworthiness for member banks to show to their customers; the E.U. does not yet have anything of a similar scale.19
By far the largest difference between the two powers, however, is defense spending. The U.S.A. famously spends more than $500 billion per year on defense, while the E.U. as a whole spends less than half what the U.S.A. does. Per capita, the difference is even larger: the U.S.A. comes in as the third-largest per-capita spender at just under $2,000 per person per year, while across the E.U. the spending averages just under $350 per person per year.20 This disparity likely arises from the history between the two: during the Cold War, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union seemed poised, at all times, to turn Europe into a battlefield once more. As a result, the U.S.-backed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) poured more and more military resources into Europe. When the Soviet Union fell, NATO did not, and has left Europe with a strong military defense that is, by and large, funded by the U.S. taxpayer. The continued presence of U.S. personnel and matériel in Europe, then, helps to reduce the need for either European states or the European Union as a whole to seriously invest in their own military.
The ongoing presence of NATO is not the sole reason for less military spending in Europe than in the U.S.A.: another significant contributing factor is the cultural differences between the two. Taken as a whole, the U.S.A. is significantly more in favor of violence than the E.U., in a variety of ways. The most visible, of course, is their policies on guns: the Second Amendment has ensconced the right to ownership of weapons in U.S. law for centuries; the E.U. makes no such constitutional provision, and, in fact, has been working to limit gun access across the entire E.U.21 As a people, Europeans like guns less than Americans: there are three guns in private hands for every ten Europeans, while the figure in the U.S.A. is nine guns to every ten people.22 Even their response to gun violence differs massively, with a requirement for E.U. membership being a ban on the death penalty; compare this to the U.S.A., where in the 2016 election three states passed ballot measures that implemented or re-implemented capital punishment.2324 On punishment in general, the U.S.A. is harsher than the E.U., with nearly six times as many prisoners per 100,000 people. Even the most punishment-happy E.U. country – Lithuania, with 254 of every 100,000 people incarcerated – only imprisons people at a third of the rate of the U.S.A.25
This stands out as an area of heavy government involvement for a nation that generally prefers their leadership to have a light touch. As a whole, the people of the U.S.A. tend to be very individualistic, and regard their own work ethic and abilities as the primary, if not only, driving force behind their success or lack thereof in life.26 This stands in contrast to the peoples of the E.U., who generally see success in life as being determined by forces outside their control; in Germany, the strongest economy within the E.U., less than a third of the population agreed with the individualistic mindset of the U.S.A.27 In a similar vein, the origins of the European welfare state are fairly visible in the ideals of the E.U. population – Americans largely want to be left to achieve their goals alone, while Europeans would rather their governments “guarantee that no one is in need.”28
This is not to say that Americans and Europeans disagree on everything – the U.S.A. and the E.U. form the core of what is regarded as “the West,” pitted against the forces of the East – the former Soviet Union, and now, the growing power of China. For the people of the West, democracy is a core ideal, and the freedoms that come with it and help to ensure it are of great importance to the peoples of the U.S.A. and the E.U. both.29 Religious freedom is fairly important to both superpowers, but they differ significantly in where they come from that stance: Europe, long the bulwark of Christianity, has fallen from that position as their increasing wealth brings decreasing belief in god.30 The U.S.A., meanwhile, is considered “the great exception” – a country that is both wealthy and deeply religious; the bastion of Christianity, maintaining belief when the original stronghold fell.31
The U.S.A. is unified by more than just belief in the Bible. Perhaps the most important unifying factor for the country is the fact that the entire population shares a single language – only seven percent of the population does not speak English to some degree or another.32 Within the E.U., no such universal language exists – English is the most broadly-spoken language within the E.U., and only a third of the population can speak it.33 This, obviously, can make communication difficult across the E.U.: Europeans regard translation as an important part of life, if not an every-day component of it.34 For the average U.S. citizen, though, such a thought is unlikely to enter their mind – there are a variety of jokes told that riff on the concept of U.S. citizens telling tourists or immigrants to “speak American” when they hear a language other than English being used. Jingoism aside, having a single common language allows for other commonalities – like the existence of a single news network to cover the entire country. Though the U.S.A. does not have a single news network covering the country, it does have networks that provide nationwide coverage – CNN, ABC, and Fox all jockeying for ratings across the entire country. There is no pan-European news network, however; the closest analogue would be broadcast news that cycles through coverage in multiple languages.
The E.U. has more problems with unity than just the lack of a common language across the E.U.: it also lacks a cohesive culture. Within the U.S.A. there are different subcultures: each state has their own identity, and different regions also have theirs. But some things are universal: the nation comes together to watch the Super Bowl, to light off fireworks on the 4th of July, and to never forget 9/11.35 Europe has an answer to the first in the World Cup, but there is no European Independence Day, and no shared day of mourning.36 The U.S.A. has their share of heroes – Abraham Lincoln may be a bit controversial in the South, and Stonewall Jackson similarly so in the North, but George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Hamilton are fairly universal in their appeal. Though the Commission has tried to create a list of founding fathers of the E.U., for one reason or another they have not picked up the same amount of dramatic flair.37 Looking further back into history, each country has their own heroes, from Empress Maria Theresia for the Austrians to Napoleon for the French. But each of these heroes is a villain in another place: Maria Theresia was a religiously oppressive empress, and Napoleon did so much damage to Europe in his wars that he was sent to exile multiple times. There are no universal European heroes, as of yet, and with neither heroes nor language in common, the citizens of the E.U. can find it difficult, at times, to see anything truly keeping them together. This lack of a coherent identity is an ongoing problem faced by the leadership of the E.U., though hopefully they will find a way to address it before it pulls the E.U. apart at the seams.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world has gone through a series of major changes. Fortunately, the age of unilateral rule by the U.S.A. was a short one, and new superpowers rose to counterbalance U.S. power. The E.U., as one of these counterbalancing powers, has the most in common with the U.S.A., but they are certainly not the same. Politically, the two have strong structural differences, from the further division of high-level power present in the E.U. to the relatively lesser powers of the states within the U.S.A.. The relationship between the two is interesting due to the split in power present in the E.U. – some foreign relations are handled at the E.U. level and others at the per-state level. Nonetheless, both are democratic organizations and are unified by their devotion to those ideals.
The U.S.A. has remained the dominant world superpower thanks to having a blend of both hard and soft power – the U.S. military is second to none, and the country remains the most powerful single economies in the world. The E.U., though lacking in any real amount of hard power, is a strong contender for the coveted spot of top global economy. The development of the Euro has brought the countries of the Eurozone closer together, though not without some bumps along the way.
Finally, the two superpowers are culturally very similar – both are, almost by definition, Western civilizations. Both value democracy highly, though the manners in which they do this vary – the people of the United States tend to be more individualistic than their counterparts in the European Union. More than just that divides them – the United States has a strong identity as a country, while the European Union is still struggling to establish such a concept of itself as a coherent whole. This is not expressed solely in the opinions of the people that make up the two superpowers: it is also eminently visible in the different degrees to which the two have centralized power. In sum, though the European Union and the United States of America have some key differences, they also have a great deal in common.

Bibliography

 European Commission: “Special Eurobarometer 386: Europeans and Their Languages“ http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf Published 2012-06, accessed 2016-11-20
 FIFA: “2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Television Audience Report” http://resources.fifa.com/mm/document/affederation/tv/01/47/31/11/additionalkeyresults.pdf Accessed 2016-11-20
 Matthias Matthjis and R. Daniel Kelemen: “Europe Reborn: How to Save the European Union from Irrelevance” from January/February 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs
 Statistica: “TV viewership of the Super Bowl in the United States from 1990 to 2016 (in millions)” https://www.statista.com/statistics/216526/super-bowl-us-tv-viewership/ Accessed 2016-11-20
 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database” https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex Accessed 2016-11-20
 Tom Dyson and Theodore Konstadinides: “Understanding the Limitations of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy” http://www.e-ir.info/2013/09/26/understanding-the-limitations-of-the-eus-common-security-and-defence-policy-a-legal-perspective/ Published 2013-09-26, accessed 2016-11-15
Ballotpedia: “List of Political Parties in the United States.” https://ballotpedia.org/List_of_political_parties_in_the_United_States Accessed 2016-11-15
BBC News In Depth: “World Prison Populations” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm Accessed 2016-11-20
BBC News: “Greece admits fudging euro entry” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4012869.stm Published 2004-11-15, accessed 2016-11-20
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/pdf/text_en.pdf Accessed 2016-11-20
CNN Money: “Europe’s gun laws are about to get even tougher” http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/05/news/gun-control-europe-new-laws/ Published 2016-01-05, accessed 2016-11-20
Dae Woong Kang, Nick Ligthart, and Ashoka Mody:“The ECB and the Fed: A comparative narrative” http://voxeu.org/article/ecb-and-fed-comparative-narrative Published 2016-01-19, accessed 2016-11-20
EUR-Lex: “Directive 94/19/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 1994 on deposit-guarantee schemes” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:31994L0019 Accessed 2016-11-23
EUR-Lex: “Division of competences within the European Union” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv%3Aai0020 Accessed 2016-11-20
Europa: “Budget” https://europa.eu/european-union/topics/budget_en Accessed 2016-11-15
Europa: “How is the E.U. funded?” https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/money/revenue-income_en Accessed 2016-11-15
Europa: “The Founding Fathers of the EU” https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/history/founding-fathers_en Accessed 2016-11-20
Fortune: “Global 500” http://beta.fortune.com/global500/ Accessed 2016-11-20
Fortune: “Top 10 Most Profitable Fortune 500 Companies in 2015” http://fortune.com/2016/06/08/fortune-500-most-profitable-companies-2016/ Accessed 2016-11-20
infoplease: “Powers of the Government” http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0877699.html Accessed 2016-11-20
International Monetary Fund: World Economic Outlook: “Statistical Appendix” http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2016/02/pdf/statapp.pdf Published October 2016, Accessed 2016-11-20
It’s Your Parliament .eu: “Groups.” http://www.itsyourparliament.eu/groups/ Accessed 2016-11-15
KennedyPearce Consulting: “London vs New York: Which is the world’s financial capital?” http://www.kennedypearce.com/worlds-financial-capital/ Accessed 2016-11-20
Pew Research: “5 ways Americans and Europeans are different” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/19/5-ways-americans-and-europeans-are-different/ Published 2016-04-19, accessed 2016-11-20
Pew Research: “Support for Democratic Principles” http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/11/18/1-support-for-democratic-principles/ Published 2015-11-08, accessed 2016-11-20
Reuters: “Death penalty gains new support from voters in several U.S. states” http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-execution-idUSKBN1343C7 Published 2016-11-09, accessed 2016-11-20
Strasbourg l’européene: “Detailed explanations about the Institutions of the European Union.” http://en.strasbourg-europe.eu/detailed-explanations-about-the-institutions-of-the-european-union,3214,en.html Accessed 2016-11-15.
Timothy Garton Ash: “Europe as Not-America” from Free World
U.S. Census Bureau: “ Language Use in the United States: 2011” https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-22.pdf Published 2013-08, accessed 2016-11-20
USA.gov: “Branches of Government.” https://www.usa.gov/branches-of-government Accessed 2016-11-15
White House Office of Management and Budget: “The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017” https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget Accessed 2016-11-15


  1. Strasbourg l’européene: Detailed explanations about the Institutions of the European Union 
  2. USA.gov: Branches of Government 
  3. Ballotpedia: List of Political Parties in the United States 
  4. It’s Your Parliament .eu: Groups 
  5. Matthjis and Kelemen, page 107 
  6. Dyson and Konstadinides, “Understanding the Limitations of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy” 
  7. Europa: How is the E.U. funded? 
  8. White House Office of Management and Budget: “The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017” 
  9. Europa: “Budget” 
  10. EUR-Lex: Division of competences within the European Union 
  11. infoplease: Powers of the Government 
  12. International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook: Statistical Appendix 
  13. Fortune: Global 500 
  14. Fortune: Top 10 Most Profitable Fortune 500 Companies in 2015 
  15. KennedyPearce Consulting: London vs New York: Which is the world’s financial capital? 
  16. BBC News: Greece admits fudging euro entry 
  17. Kang, Ligthart, and Mody: “The ECB and the Fed: A comparative narrative” 
  18. Matthjis and Kelemen, page 104 
  19. EUR-Lex: Directive 94/19/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 1994 on deposit-guarantee schemes 
  20. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 
  21. CNN Money: Europe’s gun laws are about to get even tougher 
  22. Ash, page 74 
  23. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union 
  24. Reuters: Death penalty gains new support from voters in several U.S. states 
  25. BBC News In Depth: World Prison Populations 
  26. Pew Research: 5 ways Americans and Europeans are different 
  27. Ibid. 
  28. Ash, page 74 
  29. Pew Research: Support for Democratic Principles 
  30. Pew Research: Generally, poorer nations tend to be religious; wealthy less so, except for U.S. 
  31. Ash, page 74 
  32. U.S. Census Bureau: Language Use in the United States: 2011 
  33. European Commission: Special Eurobarometer 386: Europeans and Their Languages, 19 
  34. Ibid., 9 
  35. Statistica: TV viewership of the Super Bowl in the United States from 1990 to 2016 (in millions) 
  36. FIFA: 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Television Audience Report 
  37. Europa: The Founding Fathers of the EU 
Categories
Articles Education

The Reforms of Maria Theresia and Joseph II: The Enlightenment in Austria

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the fall of 2016, titled “Austrian Cultural History.” I’ve decided to publish it here because… why not?
The Enlightenment took longer to arrive in the Holy Roman Empire than it did for the other superpowers of the time, but arrive it did. Thanks to the lack of a strong bourgeois class within the population of the Empire, however, Enlightenment did not spring up from below as it did in France. Instead, it was applied from the top down, by the reigning monarchs of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine: Maria Theresia and, later, Joseph II. Under those two rulers (arguably three, because Leopold II, the Emperor following Joseph II, seemed to have plans to continue the works of his predecessors before he died) the Holy Roman Empire felt numerous changes to bring it more in line with the Enlightened thinking of the day.
The Enlightenment brought numerous changes to Europe as a whole, but undoubtedly the furthest-reaching area in which those changes were made was the realm of civil rights. Under the Habsburgs, these changes were limited, as “Enlightened monarchs saw it as their duty to think for their subjects.”1 The largest change implemented in the Habsburg empire was the abolition of serfdom, a slow and complex process that occupied Maria Theresia and her son Joseph II during their respective reigns. Maria Theresia began the process, granting her peasant subjects many of the rights previously afforded only to free tenants. The peasantry was endowed with freedom of movement, the ability to marry without the explicit approval of their liege lord, and freedom to choose their own occupation – though what was granted on paper and what was granted in effect were different. Also notably absent from the list of rights granted to the peasants was freedom from personal service to their liege lord – it was Maria Theresia’s opinion that doing so would lead to the complete dissolution of the lord/subject relationship, eventually causing a complete slide into anarchy.2
Under Joseph II, the expansion of the rights of the peasantry continued – though, in his characteristic fashion, it was done too rapidly and wound up causing more problems than it solved. With the tax and urbanarial regulation of 1789, Joseph II converted the requirement of personal service to their liege lord into a monetary burden, a 30% tax intended to replicate the work accomplished by the traditional system under which two of every five working days were filled with working the lands of the liege lord.3 What he failed to account for was the fact that the agrarian areas in which this was to take effect did not work on a monetary economy like Vienna and the other cities of the empire, but almost entirely on barter. Prepared for argument from the liege lords, Joseph was surprised by the vehemence of the resistance offered by the peasants themselves – the very people his reform had been intended to help.4 Joseph II also brought about other civil rights reforms, beginning with decreasing the amount of censorship in public – though, it should be noted, he replaced it with strong disincentives for those producing works that didn’t match the utilitarian party line. He also enacted legal reform that meant the laws treated all, from the peasantry to the nobility, equally. Unlike his mother, he even opted to halt the use of capital punishment. In this regard he was once again more utilitarian than humanitarian: his Code of Substantive Criminal Law of 1787 replaced capital punishment with life sentences of hard labor, in order “to give the government the benefit of a wretched criminal’s toil.”5
The Enlightenment also brought with it an increasing concern for public health. While Joseph II focused on the construction of public hospitals, Maria Theresia focused more on altering the policies of her empire in order to effect change. Under her reign, vaccination came to the Holy Roman Empire – thanks in no small part to her willingness to have her own children vaccinated. Having used her own flesh and blood to prove the efficacy of the then-unpopular concept, she began to expand the use of vaccination further, going so far as to host a dinner at her Schönbrunn Palace for the first group of children to be vaccinated. She also made provisions for the increasing of medical knowledge, creating a law that made autopsies mandatory for all hospital deaths in the city of Graz – a mandate that produced one of the most thorough records in all of Europe.
For Joseph II, public health reform was an easy decision – not only was it the humanitarian thing to do, but it also met his utilitarian goals: “healthy subjects meant a healthy state.”6 Foremost of his projects was the construction of the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, and the accompanying  Guglhupf (née  Narrenturm), the first such construction the Empire had ever seen.7 Rather than regarding the poor, the ill, and the insane as a single group that should be avoided at all costs, he saw that their problems were distinct and should be treated separately. This focus on public health went further: he opened both the Parter and the Augarten to the public, ignoring the complaints of nobles regarding the lower class invasion of their formerly private rectums. were being invaded by the lower classes.8 He also ordered the cobbling of all the streets within the Viennese city proper, and instituted both a law requiring those new streets by wetted twice a day to prevent dust and a system of prisoner labor to provide such maintenance as the city needed.9
But once again, Joseph had his failings: in the regard of public health, it was his overzealous attempt to regulate the ways in which the Viennese could bury their dead. For the sake of efficiency, he created a system by which the bodies of the dead were put in mass graves, rather than taking the amount of space and effort that individual graves required. What was universally regarded as a step too far, however, was the reusable coffin – a wooden construct into which the body would be laid. The funeral (also regulated down from a miniature Baroque pageant, in the true Viennese style, to something as time-efficient as reasonably possible) would be carried out, and then the priest would release a mechanism, opening the bottom of the coffin and unceremoniously dropping the body therein into the grave below. This affront to the sensibilities of his subjects could not be borne, and after only four months he was forced to retract the decree that created the system of reusable coffins in the first place.10
Though Joseph II is rather famous for having attempted far grander reforms than his mother, there was one area in which he left her changes largely untouched: education. This is perhaps because education was the one area in which Maria Theresia’s reforms were on the same grand scale that Joseph himself preferred to work. Education was also the area that likely would have caused her the most personal anguish, being a large break from the way she herself was raised. Under Maria Theresia, the absolute control of the Austrian education system was finally wrested from the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church and instead placed firmly under the auspices of the state. While the educational system as a whole was not secularized – Maria Theresia was a steadfast believer in the tenets of the Catholic Church, while Joseph II at least recognized the utility of religion in the daily lives of his subjects – the colleges were allowed to expand from the realm of theology, and the long-standing requirement that the students be Catholics themselves was removed. For the lower levels of education, Maria Theresia acted the caring grandmother, creating a school system based on the one used in Prussia that was mandatory from the age of 6 up until the students were 12 years old. She was quite vehement in ensuring that it would take effect, as well: those who resisted the new system were arrested. Perhaps she could have stewed less dissent if she had provided for the costs of the education, but the education was not free; though the seizure of the assets of the Jesuit Order had provided some income that was put towards the new system, this was not able to meet the full cost of the education system.11 Between the cost of textbooks and the cost of tuition itself, the newly implemented schools were none too popular with the parents of the freshly-minted students.
For Joseph, this system was apparently satisfactory. He left it almost entirely untouched, though he did reduce the stature of some of the smaller universities of the realm, judging those in Prague and Vienna to be sufficient to meet the needs of his grand bureaucracy.12 As in all things, he was a utilitarian, and intervened with the university programs to ensure that all their work was for practical purposes: “[Joseph] supported general education only to the extent that the material benefits for society were demonstrable.”13 The only large change he made came as part of a larger edict, by which the institutions of the imperial government as a whole changed their formal language from Latin (or, in some cases, the local language) to German, helping to consolidate the governance of the Empire.
Unlike in the field of education, in the realm of religion Joseph II was far more willing to create change than his mother. Under Maria Theresia, religious reform was so limited as to be nearly nonexistent. She argued that religious freedom was something that “no Catholic prince can permit without heavy responsibility,” and, by and large, wanted little to do with the regulation of the church.14 Her sole aim, with regard to the Church, was to ensure the “primacy of government control in Church-state relations.”15
Joseph II stands in contrast to her restraint towards ecclesiastical affairs. As his reign began, he issued the Patent of Tolerance, granting permission for Jews and Protestants to practice whichever religion they so chose.16 Barring certain architectural limitations, they were also permitted to construct places of worship for their religions. He was not, however, in favor of unbridled religion: even as he was allowing other to practice theirs, he began to limit the ways in which faith could be displayed. The regulations he produced, spanning everything from how long a sermon could last to how many candles were permitted at the altar, “occasionally assumed the character of pettiness.”1718 The aforementioned burial changes were a part of this crusade of efficiency, one of the most visibly unsuccessful aspects of it. But by far the largest of his religious reforms was his nationalization of roughly half of the 2,000 monasteries in Austria and the collection of some 60 million Gulden in taxes and seized assets.19 The resulting funds were placed in a Religious Fund (Religionsfond) that was used to fund the construction and maintenance of a wave of parish churches, striving for an ideal by which “no one should be more than an hour’s walk from his local church.”20
The core of Joseph’s religious reforms was the idea that Catholicism, and religion in general, was a tool of the state. There is even some evidence that he considered the foundation of a Church of Austria, taking religion from an area where it was regulated by the state to a realm in which it was directly controlled.21 As part of these efforts, he made numerous other changes to bring the Church to heel: marriage was made from an ecclesiastical into a civil procedure; the number of religious holidays recognized by the state was reduced; and joining monasteries was discouraged, in no small part by banning the taking of monastic vows before the age of 24.2223 His concept of ‘modernized Catholicism’ was not only a Catholicism obedient to the state, it was one that did as little as possible to interfere with the productivity of the populace, instead encouraging the subjects of the empire to work for the collective betterment of the state and her people.
There were other reforms, of course, though none quite so far-reaching as those mentioned above. No discussion of Maria Theresia’s changes would be complete without a mention of the “comprehensive reforms” of the Empire’s military that she was forced to make in her struggle to hold the throne.24 In order to support her new military machine, she also became responsible for the construction of a new centralized bureaucracy, “adapting ancient institutions to modern needs.”25 Many of the new institutions she created are still functional today, including “the Officers’ Military Academy at Wiener Neustadt and the ‘Theresianum’ Diplomatic College in Vienna.”26 In doing so, she increased the status of Vienna as a whole, making it even more than before the heart of the Empire.27
Of Joseph II’s reforms, many have been left unmentioned – he was rather prolific in that regard. Unlike his predecessors, who left the Baroque palaces of Vienna and Austria, he focused on the construction of public goods – hospitals, orphanages, barracks, and so on.28 He continued his mother’s expansions of the city of Vienna, not only cleaning the streets but also lighting them, and enforcing the clear labelling of streets and houses.29
Maria Theresia, known as the ‘daughter of one age and mother of another,’ marked the beginning of the Enlightenment in the Holy Roman Empire. Though she herself wasn’t fully in favor of the ideals of the era, she nonetheless made numerous changes to help modernize her realm, starting with the requisite military and bureaucratic reforms needed for her to remain on the throne, but then expanding to some civil rights reforms and the educational system for which she is still known today. Her son, Joseph II, was truly an Enlightened emperor – though one who was far less effective, in the long run, than she was, thanks to the overzealous nature of his numerous reforms. Nonetheless, between the two of them they were able to make a great deal of progress towards bringing Enlightened ideals to the Holy Roman Empire.

Bibliography

Kann, Robert A.: “A History of the Habsburg Empire: 1526-1918”
Lehne, Inge and Johnson, Lonnie: “Vienna- The Past in the Present: A Historical Survey”
Parsons, Nicholas: “Vienna: A Cultural History”
Rickett, Richard: “A Brief Survey of Austrian History”


  1. Lehne-Johnson, 70 
  2. Kann, 196 
  3. Kann, 198 
  4. Kann, 199 
  5. Kann, 180 
  6. Lehne-Johnson, 64 
  7. Parsons, 186-187 
  8. Lehne-Johnson, 64-66 
  9. Lehne-Johnson, 66-67 
  10. Lehne-Johnson, 67 
  11. Kann, 193 
  12. Kann, 194 
  13. Kann, 192 
  14. Parsons, 176 
  15. Kann, 187 
  16. Lehne-Johnson, 61 
  17. Rickett, 65 
  18. Lehne-Johnson, 63 
  19. Parsons, 185-186 
  20. Parsons, 186 
  21. Kann, 184 
  22. Kann, 180 
  23. Kann, 189 
  24. Kann, 160 
  25. Rickett, 63-64 
  26. Rickett, 63-64 
  27. Lehne-Johnson, 58 
  28. Lehne-Johnson, 67 
  29. Lehne-Johnson, 70 
Categories
Review

A Short History of Nuclear Folly

So, ever since I heard about this book, I’ve wanted to read it. I’m a sucker for all this Cold War history stuff, okay? This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the books I’ve read on the subject.1
Anyhow, I’ve reached a point where very little of what I read in this book was actually new to me. Which is weird, because I hardly feel like an expert on the subject, but apparently I’m getting close. How strange.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it, or that I didn’t get anything new – quite the contrary, there were a couple really interesting bits in there that I found fascinating, and some things that I’d either never heard of or never explored in depth.
For example, while I knew about Project Plowshare, I hadn’t looked into some of the frankly ridiculous things they were trying to do.

Plowshare kicked off with the relatively small “Gnome” test near Carlsbad, New Mexico, on December 10, 1961. It was aimed, among other things, at investigating whether a nuclear explosion could be harnessed to produce energy. But the detonation destroyed the machinery that was supposed to convert the blast into power.

Hold up. They were trying to use a nuclear bomb as a generator? Had… had nobody told them about nuclear reactors? We already had those, folks.
But no, it’s more ridiculous than that, because if you dig into the full reports from the Gnome and Sedan tests, you find this:

GNOME was developed with the idea that a nuclear detonation in a salt deposit would create a large volume of hot melted salt from which heat might be extracted. The possibilities to be investigated for the production of power were the tapping of the steam created by the detonation itself and the generation of high-density, high-pressure steam by the circulation of some heat-absorbing fluid, like water, over the heated salt.
Defense Nuclear Agency, Projects Gnome and Sedan: The Plowshare Program, (Washington D.C.: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1983): 38.

tl;dr: they were going to build a geothermal power plant somewhere with no geothermal activity, and then set off a nuke to create the underground heat.
Gotta love the cold war. Other idiotic things that Plowshare wanted to try, but fortunately, was stopped from doing:

using nuclear bombs to melt the ice from polar ports, to re-channel rivers or to desalinate salt water from the ocean.

That said, the Soviets did even dumber stuff, including my single favorite sentence from the whole book:

Between 1965 and 1989, [the Soviets] carried out 116 civilian explosions . . . five were used to combat fires at oil fields.

“Hey boss, we’ve got a bit of a fire going over here.”
“Alright, we’re just gonna nuke it.”
“Seems reasonable.”

I’m going to stop here, because I can’t give away all of the fun parts of the book.2 I quite enjoyed it, so I’m quite happy to recommend it. Have a read.


  1. Fun story: Chase is trying to convince me to write a book about this stuff, because he’s a history nerd and thinks other people should be too. 
  2. And the long-winded blog post on the subject that I might wind up writing in the future, if Chase gets his way. 
Categories
Review

“Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”

“When veterans get together, it doesn’t matter who won or lost,” [Makarov] said through his translator. “It’s enough that both survived.”

Oh boy, do I love me some Cold War history. It’s easily my favorite time period to read about, and the one that I keep coming back to whenever my education requires I learn something about the past, lest I repeat it.1 The craziness of the whole period fascinates me – the Space Race happened in such a short time, people were cramming nuclear reactors into anything they could think of, Freeman Dyson was wandering around spitting out ideas that will probably remain the basis of science fiction giga-structures for the rest of human history, and the military was determinedly ensuring that they could wipe out the entire human race before the Commies could, dammit! It was insane! And a bit of a miracle that we all survived, really.
This book dove2 into an aspect of the Cold War that I hadn’t actually thought about very much. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about submarines, but never really as elements for espionage, always in either their key role as an element of the US nuclear triad3 or in the sort of crazy things I’d do with them if I had the sort of ridiculous budget that both Navies had during the War.
But they actually make a lot of sense in that context – nearly impossible to spot from orbit, invisible from the surface; their only real weakness to detection is sonar, and from the standpoint of a submarine or other stealth craft, active sonar is a big no-no when you’re trying to stay hidden. They’re basically the perfect stealth vehicle. So why not use them to do a bit of listening in?
And boy oh boy did they do some cool stuff with that. The one that takes the cake is actually how I found this book: Operation Ivy Bells. A specially-modified nuclear submarine wandered in past Soviet naval defenses and settled down on top of a key underwater communications line. Divers went out, divers affixed a wiretap, divers went back in. Wait a day or two, pick the wiretap back up, and then sneak back home to deliver the tapes to the spooks at the NSA.4 Between them and the people listening in on the sub itself, they found that the line was a treasure trove: the Soviets assumed it was safe, as it ran entirely within Soviet territorial waters, and part of the time they didn’t even bother to encrypt their communications. It was an intelligence coup, one that would be repeated on multiple other undersea cables, bringing in massive amounts of information. (At first, the wiretap could only run for a week at most before being replaced; the NSA and the Navy called in engineers from telecoms companies, and wound up building one with some rudimentary computational capabilities and an onboard nuclear power plant;56 the new device could be left in place for a year or more, require far less frequent invasions-of-territory by US subs.)
I’m going to stop there, having given away one of the biggest success stories told in the book, but that’s hardly all of it – the book, a beautiful work of non-fiction, weaves several interesting tales, ranging from political intrigue to scientific success stories to on-the-edge-of-your-seat adventure novel in places. I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who’s at all interested in Cold War history.7


  1. What, exactly, I’m personally in danger of repeating from the Cold War, I don’t really know. 
  2. Pun absolutely intended. 
  3. Land-based missiles, SAC bombers constantly in the air, and submarines packed to the rafters with SLBMs. 
  4. This was back in the good old days, when our nation’s spies were looking outside the country. Mostly. Unless you were a Communist. Or Communist-adjacent. Or, y’know, vaguely suspicious.
    That said, the NSA didn’t do the “watching our own,” that was mostly handled (very illegally) by the CIA. 
  5. It wasn’t stated in the book, but I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that it was a radio-thermal generator, better known as an RTG; both sides in the Cold War used them to power space-based devices, and the Soviets also used them to power a grid of remote lighthouses along their long, long coastline. 
  6. The “nuclear-powered lighthouses” thing would turn out to be a horrible idea, though only after the Soviet Union had already collapsed; the lighthouses these days have been stripped for materials, leading, presumably, to a spate of heavily-irradiated thieves around the country. 
  7. Or just people who’re interested in submarines, a stance which I totally respect – submarines are cool!